Title: Referenda and the Religious Right Credit: Politics and religion commentator Craig Young Comment Saturday 23rd June 2012 - 12:08pm1340410080 Article: 11911 Rights
Given that Colin Craig wants a referendum on same-sex marriage, someone needs to have a sober and rational look at binding referenda. Are they really participatory democracy or tools for tyrants, demagogues and selfish sectional interests? Following Toby Jones in a recent issue of History Today (May 2012), I would have to say the latter. In the late eighteenth century, successive unstable French revolutionary regimes and the Emperor Napoleon used them. Indeed, in the latter's case, there was a high rate of non-participation and his referenda saw the onset of the suspiciously high percentage of affirmative responses that are the hallmark of rubber stamp 'referenda' the world over, and throughout history. If one wants more proof of the malignancy of referenda, take the regime of Napoleon III in the mid-nineteenth century. Democratically elected in 1848, he staged a coup d'etat in 1852 after a period of political instability. Dissidents were imprisoned, exiled or transported to overseas penal colonies, press and media censorship was instituted, and political opposition was ruthlessly suppressed. Yet Napoleon III saw nothing contradictory about holding a referendum which had the usual suspect high rates of approval, given non-participation of his regime's adversaries. Even Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany held referenda- Hitler used them to rubberstamp his new role of fuhrer and his annexation of the Saarland (1935) and Rhineland (1936). Apart from the lessons of history, what others exist to warn us away from populist and authoritarian social conservative enthusiasm for referenda? At the moment, Prime Minister Key seems prudent enough to reject the prospect of binding citizens referenda, given that the overuse of such populist baubles has bankrupted the state of California. Why? It takes money from taxation revenue to hold referenda, and in a time of recession, that money needs to be earmarked for public health, education and welfare services. As a pragmatic centre-right governing party leader, Key knows this. As Colin Craig has never been in local or central government, and nor has Bob McCoskrie, it's easy for them to propose costly policies while one does not occupy the Treasury benches. To put this into concrete terms, it is the height of selfish sectarian arrogance to propose costly referenda if that means that people suffer because the government cannot spend money on (say) hip replacements for elderly citizens, or remedial reading programmes in schools. Both are essential core public services. In making that comparative argument, we arouse public concern at the waste of money involved, especially during a recession. (And of course, referenda have their detractors amongst some conservatives as well- the Maxim Institute is adamantly opposed, perhaps aware of the troublesome international historical angle cited above, as is Key, on fiscal conservative grounds). Added to which, there is the question of local referenda as substantive tools for democratic reform- which they are not. Despite the large number of petitions circulated to hold non-binding citizens referenda under the CIR Act 1993, it is striking that only four have ever made it to the final ballot box. One of them involved firefighter staffing levels, but the others were about cutting back the number of MPs, law and order concerns and the corporal punishment of children. In practise then, the CIR process favours populist oversimplification of substantive political issues and favours social conservatives- which may explain their abundant use in the United States against same-sex marriage. In Switzerland, they have been used against the construction of further Muslim minarets in Zurich- although I suspect the Christian Right wouldn't be too happy about their alternative, libertarian uses to introduce medicinal cannabis and euthanasia law reform in the United States, and euthanasia law reform and state-funded heroin distribution in Switzerland. However, the latter instances are an exception to the general rule. (Sadly, to be consistent, I must also oppose the well-intentioned Labour/Green CIR against asset sales on the same basis. Fortunately, there are other ways to oppose their privatisation plans and I fully back those. Any doubts that I might have had vanished when I read the so-called "BetterDemocracy BCIR advocacy group's media release praising the Greens for their use of paid signature collectors to obtain signatures for the asset sales referendum. "Better Democracy" wants the reduction of any BCIR threshold to be set at 100,000, as well as hawking "veto" and "recall" referenda. "Veto" of what? Why do I suspect it would be 'veto' of LGBT rights, abortion decriminalisation and other progressive social reforms? And again, where would the money come from for these? Central government social service spending would be gutted). It should also be remembered that due to Anita Bryant's hatemongering back in the late seventies, and a resultant referendum against LGBT adoption, Florida had barriers against lesbian and gay adoption until very recently. In 1992, Colorado passed a referendum that temporarily stripped state lesbians and gay men of antidiscrimination law coverage- until the US Supreme Court overturned it in 1996 (Romer v Evans). More recently, Slovenia has also used a referendum approach to forestall LGBT-inclusive adoption reform. Interestingly enough, the US Ambassador, David Huebner, is opposed to BCIRs as well. In April 2010, he stated his opposition at a Waikato University symposium. He argued that the abuse of continued referenda has caused high fiscal uncertainty and has crippled the Californian economy. Tellingly, Steve Baron (Better Democracy) attributed Mr Huebner's unease to his sexual orientation. As for Mr Baron's own bias, one notes that there was a reference to the notorious antigay Proposition 8 in California, which temporarily derailed same-sex marriage in that state (although it did link to a US National Lesbian and Gay Task Force analysis of Proposition 8's original result!) Referenda are not about increased democratic participation. Most often, they are the tools of tyrants or authoritarian social conservatives who want to use them as a populist gimmick to short-circuit the more deliberative nature of parliamentary representation and institutions. In a time of recession, they also starve social services of much-need government funds. Recommended: Toby Jones: "Device of Despots?" History Today: 62.5 (May 2012): 16-18 Andrew Geddis and Bridget Fenton: "CIRs" New Zealand Law Journal: October 2009: 34-36. David Broder: Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money: Harvest Books: 2001 Richard Ellis: Democratic Delusions: The Initiative Process in America: University of Kansas Press: 2002. Peter Schrag: Paradise Lost? California's Experience , America's Future? New York: New Press: 1998. Peter Schrag: "Take the Initiative, Please: Referenda Madness in California" American Prospect: Wikipedia: Referendums in New Zealand: "US Ambassador extremely anti- "Direct Democracy" Better Democracy Blog: 20.04.2010: "Same Sex Marriage in California" Better Democracy: 28.02.2009: Politics and religion commentator Craig Young - 23rd June 2012    
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